Winter Letter, January 2017


Dear Friends,

It is Wednesday in the week of holy days—Winter Solstice, Christmas and Hanukkah—and it’s been cold for Santa Cruz, clear and brisk, some nights below freezing, startling us in our little beach town.  These nights have felt holy, holy and rare, rarified and hopeful, the winter sky full of stars that tell us there is stability in the cosmos and beauty all around.

Like so many in the country and around the world, my breath has been haggard and strange since November 9.  I tell my body to relax, to breathe, I tell my heart to open, be curious and unafraid, I tell my soul… well I can’t tell my soul anything, the best I can do is listen, and too often I don’t do that very well.  But when I do get quiet enough, my soul says something like this:  There are many things you do not know.  Be open to not knowing.  Stand with those in pain.  Stand with your own pain.  Be open to the pain and the love in the world.  Then look up to the stars.  They, too, are your destiny.

So this afternoon I write to you, my dear ones near and far. I write to say I am here, and keeping on: writing, loving, teaching, praying, walking, swimming, sharing, and writing again. These past weeks have been clarifying in an unwelcome but fruitful kind of way.  I find myself looking deeply at my life, and at history—the small, short history of our country, and at world history, the long scope of our human story, and the unfolding history of our wondrous planet, four and a half billion years old and counting.  Great epics, all.  We today are just one moment in those epics.  Among the great stars, all of our lives are but a small, brief moment.  Strange, how this gives comfort.  The certain knowledge that we live in momentous times, shared equally with the perspective of the non-human, natural and cosmic beauty all around.

As I watch great changes wash over the world and my country, perhaps disrupting the last of a fragile world order, I find myself thinking of my Irish ancestors and all they endured, for many centuries—invasions, colonization, extreme poverty, famine, political and economic upheaval of all kinds. Still they kept on, in times of stability and in times of upheaval, somehow preserving the ways and mythos of a very ancient Irish culture. There is a throughline in Irish history—an unbroken thread of several thousand years—which is life-giving, astonishing and beautiful.  Thousands upon thousands of ordinary people kept this alive: teachers, parents, grandparents, storytellers, singers, musicians, monks, poets, writers, wisdom-keepers, druids. This longevity reminds us that time and existence is a river, and that any one moment is never the end.  As I stand here at this historical moment, unsure, rattled, frightened, and also open, resolute and curious, I know that my life is in debt to the artists and keepers of mythic stories from the old worlds, and in our current times.  This is my primary allegiance, to stand with artists, writers and myth makers, for there is something in the creative spirit that saves us, again and again and again.

I have been thinking of Ireland because I was walking that holy land only a few months ago. In September I led a group of writers on a writing retreat and tour of sacred sites.  Jean and I arrived in Dublin to meet twelve amazing, wise, funny and talented women from California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maine, Washington, Oregon, Connecticut.  Most of us were meeting for the first time, yet we formed a magical clan that walked the land of Ireland like settled bards, stepping for a moment into long-ago footsteps generous enough to share the stories and music of the country with us.

With these women I saw something I have been hoping to see my entire life.  On the morning of the Fall Equinox we went to Loughcrew in County Meath before dawn, to a passage mound built 5,500 years ago. The ancient name for Loughcrew is Slieve na Caileach, or Hill of the Old Woman.  The Caileach is the ancient feminine spirit of the land, older than time and all human creations.  On her sacred hill, Irish ancestors built a passage mound of megalithic stones, carved with symbols and drawings, oriented to the rising sun on the Equinox. To say the least, the skies are not always clear in Ireland, but that September dawn the last morning stars shone in a clear blue cerulean sky.  By the time we crested the hill, salmon pink filled the air. The sunrise was bright, sharp, penetrating.  Sideways light poured into the mound and illuminated the carved stones within, like a voice speaking directly from the living earth. I grabbed my phone and snapped a photo, but mostly I kneeled and stared, willing my eyes to memorize the light, absorbing it through my pores. I was inside for only a few minutes, for there were 150 people in line that morning, but it was enough.  It was more than enough.  That afternoon, I scribbled:

It feels that the light has entered me.  I close my eyes and see it. I touch my heart and feel it.  Something echoes in my chest. It has to do with what it is to capture light. To take the rising light of the sun and to allow it to be channeled at a particular hour on a particular day into a particular Beauty.  Isn’t that the essence of writing, poetry, and all art? Something is channeled out of the general Beauty into a specific moment, a specific Beauty.

I think now of Loughcrew and wonder, what will we leave to the future?  Today we can climb that hill and enter a passage mound left by humans 5,500 years ago.  What will we leave?  We can’t all build magical structures with megalithic stones, but like that throughline of Ireland, there are thousands of ways to leave something behind, something vital and lifegiving, to leave a legacy when fortune shines bright, and in foreboding times when events turn dark, ugly or brutal.

During these past months, I have discovered something new, even startling—that I am a patriot.  I have never thought of myself that way, never wished to be a patriot, never even liked the word.  I have always loved the crazy, vibrant USA, but felt no wish to put it above other countries as superior.  A brief glance at history makes it clear that nations are short-lived entities which come and go in the history of humankind, temporal and changing, created by men, fragile, sometimes beautiful, often easily corruptible. Growing up in Washington DC, it was not hard to see the flaws in my own country.  At ten years old I was arguing with visiting adults against the war in Vietnam.  In college I joined the women’s movement, the environmental movement, the gay rights movement. It seemed to me, and still does, that the daily worlds we live in and build are intimate, nearby and local—our communities, families and towns—and that we each need to find and sustain the throughline that matters to us on our beautiful earth.  This was my organizing principle, not allegiance to a nation state.

So to call myself a patriot is new, and surprising.  Perhaps I am like any short-sighted human who does not appreciate what we have until we are in danger of losing it.  In truth, there is a beautiful, fragile vision at the core of the United States of America.  What remarkable founding ideas and traditions—freedom, human equality, social justice.  I believe in the First Amendment, the one that has to do with liberty, the freedom to speak, to be who you are, the freedom to make and do and live in accordance with your faith and convictions.  Most humans on the planet do not have these freedoms; they are rare, to be fought for and defended.  People want to come to the USA for economic opportunity, and for the protected freedom to speak and praise according to their beliefs.

And it is true that this vision stands in stark relief to our original sins—the genocide of native peoples, the crime of slavery, discrimination against people of color and the wrenching need for Black Lives Matter, along with the historical repression of women and the unchecked crime of sexual assault.  These wounds, and many others, reverberate painfully in our civic life today. The only path forward is to hold the light of our founding vision side by side with the fact and impact of our early and ongoing wounds. Healing comes when a wound is acknowledged, seen, spoken, grieved, looked at, tended.  I believe in this work, for there is great hope and potential still to be found in the destiny of this country.  Alongside the difficulties of our history, there is an undeniable brilliance in the crazy patchwork of the USA.  Once I watched a multi-faith religious service in New York City: a Jewish rabbi stood next to a Muslim imam and they both led prayers, a female minister read Christian scripture, a Catholic priest prayed, and a black Baptist preacher told of a new day arising. A woman writer read her sacred poetry, and a black male dancer used his body as an elegant, gleaming prayer. It was a beautiful, complex portrait of what is possible in this land.

And still when I consider what it is to be a patriot, I think most essentially of this magnificent landscape and its creatures. I am a patriot for the raptors, alligators and bears, the whales, cougars, wolves and hummingbirds.  I am a patriot for the mountains and deserts, the lakes and rivers, the prairies and high plateaus. And of course, to be allied with the land is to be allied with its original peoples. There is a light now emanating across the world from Standing Rock, North Dakota. Most of you know that native Sioux tribes have taken a stand as Water Protectors against an oil pipeline to be dug underneath the Missouri River, half a mile from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.  In April, Sioux elder LaDonna Brave Bull Allard established a camp of spiritual resistance to the pipeline.  Within months, hundreds of American Indian tribes had joined the camp in solidarity—the largest gathering of native peoples in more than a century. These people are, of course, the only non-immigrants among us.  Who they are and what they teach is a true path forward for our country. They describe their action as spiritual, not political. They are protecting the water with their presence, their prayer and ceremony, because water is sacred, water is life. Like the ancient people of Ireland, the original peoples of this land, despite unspeakable suffering and decimation, have held onto a throughline. They know the land as a living, spirited being, and are the keepers of its mythic stories. They are still there at Standing Rock, encamped through a snowy, freezing winter.  There has been a temporary halt to construction, but the outcome of the pipeline is not yet known.  It will be determined by their stand, and by the demands and outcry of the rest of us.  The native tribes require and deserve our constant support, for they are protectors of life itself.  I stand with them, in love, hope, humility and grief, and seek to listen and learn.

As I write, the afternoon has turned quiet, and the room is becoming dark.  I think of this holiday—and our dear one who was not with us this year, my mother-in-law Barbara, who died this summer.  I lost a treasured elder and a friend, and Jean lost her mother.  Always lovely, always a bright part of the holiday, Barbara was with us the last ten years for Christmas, elegant, funny, smart and generous.  She had become more frail, and within weeks of turning 97, she let her body go.  Jean and I were with her at 1am on August 22nd   when she took her last breath. The holy night seemed to glow with the presence of her leaving, and we were confronted with the mystery of death, the hope and finality of it.  We miss her, terribly—there is an empty space she used to fill, and that space is now echoing with our love and memories, for which there is, in me, only gratitude.

As the holidays wind down, our daughter Katie is packing upstairs; she has been visiting for three lovely weeks. Katie is our world traveler, co-founder of the Waka Waka Project which is educating children in Tanzania, Africa, where she spends her summers every year.  Last July she cast out farther and moved to Panama City to teach at an International School. What a pleasure it has been to hear of her world and community, the people from all over the planet who teach alongside her, the beauty and challenges of her new life.  I listen and love her, love her beauty and her courage, her willingness to leap and explore new things, to know our world.  Our daughter Emily has stayed closer, teaching in Sunnyvale in the student-oriented educational program she helped to develop in partnership with Stanford University for sixth graders at her middle school.  She becomes wiser, calmer, smarter and more lovely all the time.  I watch her life unfold, her spirituality deepen and her heart open with the complexities of life, and am grateful for the moments we share in the unfolding stories of our lives.  Her own life is expanding, with her smart and endearing boyfriend Chris and her adorable dog Olive. And thus our little family shifts and changes, with Jean and I deepening our love and finding our way in a life without Barbara just down the way.  We are the elders now, and we both feel startled by this, and still young, and yet too, we are older, and a bit wiser, and yes, we are the elders now, for in this we have no choice. We continue to love our sweet town, and to offer our home as sanctuary. Day after day, week after week, we welcome friends and writers to come and be their truest selves.

To you, dear ones, I send love, peace, respect, hope.  I send you the same wish I have for myself—that you find the throughline that matters in your life, the beliefs, stories, songs, myths, and prayers that are yours to carry and offer.  Then walk outside and spend ten minutes with the earth—a bush, a tree, a plant, a bird, a squirrel, or simply gaze at the sky from your driveway.  Look, and listen, and be still.  We have been given a gift.  In the end, we ourselves, our bodies, our lives, hearts and memories, are the throughline for humanity.  The task is to save ourselves, and to save the earth, thereby saving all the exquisite, intelligent animals and creatures of this planet, whose lives are of equal importance to ours, though in utter danger due to our actions.

Though I sometimes find myself shuddering at the thought of the coming times, there is something that sustains me—and it is all of you. I lean into the knowledge of your lives and your presence, and you can lean into me. Together we carry our own throughline—equality, freedom, social justice, poetry, art, myth, healing for the earth and all beings. Be present with and good to yourself. There is all around you a great and beautiful cosmos. You are a true light within it.  Know that I hold you in my heart, and have eternal faith in you, and in us, and in the wise earth, from whom we all arise, our mother.

Blessings and love always,


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